Driven and sustained by his daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen lived an intense life of holiness, zeal to save souls and Christian love that helped make him the most influential Catholic in 20th-century America, biographer Thomas C. Reeves says.
Reeves has released a previously unpublished conclusion to his 2002 Sheen biography, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen (Encounter Books). The concluding chapter, titled “Living Intensely,” covers Venerable Sheen’s spirituality, his inspiration and how others viewed his life. While Reeves does not directly promote Sheen as a candidate to be raised to the altars, his book’s concluding chapter is a very tidy summation of Sheen’s merits for sainthood. Reeves is making the chapter available for free on the internet, and has donated it for inclusion in his papers at Marquette University.
“To an extraordinary degree, his mind was on God,” Reeves wrote of Sheen (1895-1979), the prolific author and Catholic evangelist best remembered for his 1950s television series, “Life is Worth Living.” “This supernatural approach to life activated and sustained his enormous energy. He said late in life, ‘the secret of my power is that I have never in fifty-five years missed spending an hour in the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That’s where the power comes from. That’s where sermons are born. That’s where every good thought is conceived.’ ”
Sheen’s commitment to keeping a holy hour began on the day of his ordination on September 20, 1919 and lasted until the day of his death on December 9, 1979. He was clearly devoted to the practice, but he viewed it not as a devotion but “a sharing in the work of redemption.” For many decades, he urged brother priests, religious and all the faithful to make a daily holy hour.
“We become like that which we gaze upon. Looking into a sunset, the face takes on a golden glow,” Sheen wrote in his autobiography, Treasure in Clay. “Looking at the Eucharistic Lord for an hour transforms the heart in a mysterious way, as the face of Moses was transformed after his companionship with God on the mountain.” The holy hour was also a source for intellectual ideas and preaching. “Theological insights,” Sheen once said, “are gained not only from the two covers of a treatise, but from two knees on a prie-dieu before a tabernacle.”
In September 2002, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints officially opened Sheen’s canonization case and conferred on him the title “Servant of God.” An investigation into Sheen’s heroic virtue began in 2008. After a tribunal on a miracle attributed to Sheen’s intercession, Pope Benedict XVI in June 2012 affirmed Sheen’s heroic virtue and conferred on him the title “Venerable.” In 2014, a dispute arose as to where Sheen’s body would repose for the expected beatification and canonization. The Archdiocese of Peoria announced on September 3, 2014 that the Sheen cause was being suspended indefinitely.
A lifelong drive for holiness and purity was not just a Sheen hallmark, Reeves wrote, but a key to his success in spreading the Gospel and winning converts. He quotes Sheen: “In a word, every fiber, every muscle, every sense, every faculty must be used to win the eternal crown, for may it not be that all our indifference to the gifts and the graces of God in this day and age is more crucifying to our Lord than the cruel intolerance which nailed him to the cross?”
“If we live intensely,” Sheen wrote, “I believe that somehow or other we can work up until the day God draws the line and says, ‘Now it is finished.’ ”
Sheen died sitting before the Blessed Sacrament in his chapel on Sunday, December 9, 1979. He said it was his regular prayer to die in just such a manner on a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he was particularly devoted. The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on December 8 each year. Sheen made his final holy hour on his final day on earth. He was faithful to the end.
Reeves brought a unique perspective to his research and writing on Sheen. Already an accomplished history professor at the University of Wisconsin and a New York Times bestselling author, Reeves encountered Sheen’s work while undergoing his own conversion from Anglicanism to the Catholic faith. He said he was astonished to learn that no major biography had been written on Sheen, despite the archbishop’s high profile and an increasing sense that Sheen was among the most consequential Catholics of the 20th century. Reeves said his wife Kathie looked at him and said, “You should write it.” And so he took on the project, which took two and a half years of research and writing.
His previous works included biographies of presidents Chester A. Arthur, John F. Kennedy, and Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Four years after releasing America’s Bishop, Reeves wrote his final book, Distinguished Service, a biography of Walter Kohler Jr., former Wisconsin governor and owner of the Kohler Company. Reeves’ 1996 book, The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, was part of what prompted him to become Catholic. His crisply written Twentieth Century America: A Brief History (Oxford University Press), was a clear thinking alternative to the turgid, factious narratives often produced by academia.
Sheen had a single-minded focus that showed in an almost unbelievable record of writings (66 books), broadcasts, appearances, religious retreats, missions, fund-raising and individual instruction of converts. “He did not take days off or vacations or reserve any significant amount of time for himself in the normal course of things just to relax,” Reeves wrote. “There was critical work to do, and it was God’s work.”
Reeves said that he was struck by how few people were openly critical of Sheen. Reeves writes of Sheen’s self-admitted struggles with pride and vanity, his epic battles with Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, and his fudging of his curriculum vitae to include a second doctorate degree he never earned. But on the balance, Reeves said, “Sheen’s failings seem extraordinarily minimal.” His virtues included his deep love for the Catholic Church, gifted communication skills, generous personal charity and a true zeal to save souls.
“Fulton J. Sheen at no time claimed to be a saint,” Reeves wrote. “Indeed, he denied he was holy. Sheen thought himself a mere sinner and was constantly begging God to forgive him and to supply him with the grace to be holy and devote himself more fully and effectively to the work of the Church. Saints are made of such stuff.”
Sheen’s success on television and in person was in large part driven by his positive disposition. “His optimism, humility, grand sense of humor and concern for others made him attractive to practically everyone who crossed his path—in person, in publications or in the media,” he wrote. Reeves said Sheen had a “glorious voice” and penetrating eyes that helped him become “a master of the stagecraft.”
Sheen’s “Life is Worth Living” program on the DuMont television network beat famous comedian Milton Berle in the ratings and led to Sheen winning the 1952 Emmy award as the most outstanding television personality, and being featured on the cover of Time magazine. The show, which ran from 1951-57, drew 30 million viewers a week. Sheen’s programs are still aired on the global Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). His long-running “Catholic Hour” radio program aired nationally for more than two decades. Episodes can still be found on the internet.
“He was the respite from the rat-race of life, the assurance that the urge that their human spirit felt for peace and happiness could be satisfied and would be satisfied in God,” said Sergio Cardinal Pignedoli, quoted in the book.
Sheen’s work is as relevant today as when he made the speeches, wrote the books and appeared on broadcasts, Reeves notes. “Bishop’s life and times are as relevant today as the Christian message of peace, hope, good cheer, and salvation,” Reeves said. “He was a guiding light in a particular period, when this nation was more innocent and traditional. But he remains, in his books and television programs, an inspiring teacher of solid and relevant Catholicism for all who seek a meaningful life and death.”
Sheen’s faithfulness to the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church is one reason he is often discounted in today’s world, Reeves said, and why his material is sometimes viewed as “dated.” Had Sheen chosen to defy the Vatican, promote dissent or be a rebel, he would be hailed as a hero in many circles, including some Catholic ones.
Sheen’s talks and written materials pound home the seriousness of sin, and warn of the manifestations of human guilt from unconfessed and unforgiven sins. He stressed the importance of Jesus Christ crucified, and blasted at the notion of the redemption of Easter Sunday without the ignominy of Good Friday and of Christ’s soul-saving sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. He preached on the stark and threatening reality of Satan, and constantly warned of the consequences of denying sin or discounting evil.
Sheen often concluded his three-hour Good Friday meditation at St. Agnes Church in New York City with the dramatic telling of an encounter with Christ in the throes of crucifixion. “I will take you down,” Sheen says to Jesus. “I cannot be taken down,” the Blessed Lord replies, “until every man, woman and child come together to take me down.” Sheen desperately pleads: “Then what can I do? I cannot bear your cry.” His voice takes on eternal tones as he quotes Jesus: “Go into the world and tell everyone that you meet, ‘There is a man on the Cross!’"
These any many other examples are why Pope St. John Paul II told Sheen in October 1979 that he had “written and spoken well of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The pope then concluded, in a touching embrace of a frail Sheen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, “you are a loyal son of the Church.” What sweet words those must have been to Sheen, who just 67 days later was called home by Christ.
“Fulton J. Sheen believed himself called to live intensely for God and His Church,” Reeves wrote. “Pope John Paul II assured him at the end that he had fought the good fight. The historical record gives us confidence that this verdict is true.”